Remembering through Contemporary Art

Circa takes a look back on this blogpost from 2011…

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks upon us, it seems only fitting that we step back to reflect on the unutterable losses that have ultimately changed our world. Across the country, memorials will be held, poetry read, and prayers uttered. It’s not a surprise, then, when we consider that the Art World has been affected by this tragedy as well–and New York, in particular, is ripe with artistic expression surrounding the events of September 11.

In commemoration of the anniversary, numerous galleries and art centers have come together as part of a citywide event, titled “Remembering 9/11: The 10th Anniversary.” All told, more than 50 institutions are partaking in exhibitions, readings, and performances dedicated to honoring those lost in the terrorist attacks. Now that a decade has passed, it seems that some artists now feel that their wounds–personal, physical or psychic–have healed enough to revisit, leading to a proliferation of works.

The Brooklyn Museum is presenting Ten Years Later: Ground Zero Remembered, an exhibition featuring works by two artists, Michael Richards and Christoph Draeger. The inclusion of Richards is especially notable for NCMA visitors, who may be familiar with Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, currently located in our Modern and Contemporary Galleries. During his tragically short career, Michael Richards frequently addressed issues of social injustice, creating stunning sculptures that criticize oppression.

Michael Richards, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999, body cast in resin and fiberglass, painted, and supported by steel shaft, with airplanes cast in resin and fiberglass, painted, and attached by steel bolts, On loan from the estate of the artist

Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian commemorates the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots whose heroic contributions to World War II were recognized only in the past few decades. The sculpture itself, cast from the artist’s own body, represents a gold-painted airman penetrated on all sides by small airplanes, reminiscent of the arrows shot at St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr and saint. The title of the work, with its double reference to the saint and a southern folktale of entrapment, pays tribute to the Tuskegee pilots–and to all who suffer intolerance and unfairness.

The back story of the sculpture, though, is a haunting one, and is quite pertinent to the anniversary of 9/11. The work itself, in effect a self-portrait, now seems an eerie foretelling of the artist’s death. Richards was a victim of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001–his studio was on the ninety-second floor of Tower One. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, too, was feared lost in the wreckage, as it was not found in the remains of the artist’s studio, or at his home. It was only revealed later to be stored in a relative’s garage outside of New York City.

Now housed at the NCMA on long-term loan, the work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, for September 11. Stop by over the weekend and include this as a must-see on your list.

2 thoughts on “Remembering through Contemporary Art”

  1. Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian was about the discrimination, racism, contradictions and double standards Black US service men, known as the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, were challenged with from white US service men and Government officials. Artist Michael Richards work meditated on social ills and trauma but also the transcending ways the human spirit prevails and ascends. In essence his work was stating the obvious with a poetic approach much like artists, William T. Williams, Coco Fusco, Tilsa Tsuchiya, Howardena Pindel and Jean Michel Basquiat. Any references to the visuals of planes crashing in relation to September 11th are a coincidence. Richards was addressing the contradictions of one’s own Government attacking it’s own black servicemen. The World Trade Center had nothing to do with this theme.

    Addressing Michael Richards work with these visual connections tends to reduce the artists voice into one act and over simplifies his life’s work.

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